Want More Work? Get into Video, Advises Chow’s Jane Goldman

May 082012
 

Jane Goldman doesn’t mince words. When I asked Chow.com’s head eater whether food writers can make a living, she suggested finding another profession. Ouch!

At least she has a suggestion: Learn video.

Now the vice president and editor-in-chief of CBS Interactive’s Entertainment and Lifestyle division, Goldman was a writer and editor in the past, including for the Industry Standard, New York, Rolling Stone, and Wired. She has also been a screenwriter and producer.

Goldman founded Chow as a print magazine in 2004. CNET acquired it in 2006, along with Chowhound.com, and turned it into an online site. CBS Interactive Media acquired both in 2008. There are 3,000 to 5,000 recipes on the site.

I spoke with her about the opportunities for food writers at Chow.com and beyond:

Q. What are your responsibilities at Chow?

A. I’m the combination publisher and editor, responsible for the budget. Ad sales people do not report to me but I am obviously implicated in the bottom line. I run the operation, engineers, product people, designers, writers, editors, and recipe developers.

Q. What is Chow doing that’s different from other food websites?

A. Our attitude, the demographic and the reason we exist stay the same: to provide an informal, intelligent, irreverent voice in the world of food. It’s about beautiful food but it’s about having fun.

We’re moving very heavy into video series. We have one I love calledYou’re doing it all wrong.” It’s easy to watch, intelligent, tightly edited, and doesn’t waste your time.

Chowhound is also an incredible resource for cooking and restaurants. The home cooking board is one of the most popular boards on the site. Ask a question and sometimes you get an answer in seconds from some really experienced cooks.

Q. On your site it says most recipes are developed in house or by members. You don’t hire people to write recipes?

A. Rarely. We asked Leah Koenig to do some Passover recipes. Sometimes if they’re specialized, we hire someone. But we have three people in test kitchen to do the recipes.

Q. You’re heavily into video and you don’t pay for recipes. What I’m getting from you is that food writers need to evolve, if this is the future.

A. Yes. People think they can have a meal and write about it, but that is not valuable to anybody except your immediate family. The principles of journalism need to apply. You need to add something: your own point of view, your personality, some research.

Q. So food writers need to become videographers?

A. I think that would help. Right now it’s a more vibrant medium. It’s still hard to read online. The web is turning into a directory and people are using it as an in-house library or as entertainment.

Video is about paying attention and not letting stuff slip. You’re looking to tell a story in the most engaging way: Move stuff around, cut stuff out, add graphics and titles and information and make it dense and interesting.

The tools for video are amazing. It’s easy, with simple software like iMovie, to make a good video.

Q. Hmm. How can you make this sound less scary for a word-based person like me?

A. Well I can’t. There’s always going to be a market for stories. The sources of written information are going to become far far fewer. Also words can be reproduced.

Q. Do you still hire freelancers for general stories?

A. We started cutting down our freelance contributions about three years ago. Our staff writes and we have a chef who writes because he has a very particular point of view.

Q. So people should not be pitching you for stories?

A. That’s correct, unless you have a video idea.

Q. That’s really depressing.

A. I know. I love the stories. But the appetite for written stories is just not as great as for video. I’m not saying food writing cannot be a profession. I’m just saying that’s how it works at Chow.

Q. How does a freelance food writer make a living then?

A. Probably find another occupation.

Q. Like become a videographer?

A. Yeah, I think that’s really right, or by writing treatments for video.

Q. Can you say more about that?

A. At Chow we’re looking for video series, concepts that are web series. Those need to be written and produced. The job of a producer is very similar to being an editor, and the job of a writer is similar. The producer is making the phone calls, finding people for the job. Someone once told me it’s like throwing a party: Get all the right people together and hope for the best, come back when it’s getting out of control.

Script writers write dialog. Otherwise it’s more like screen writing in that you come up with scenes and what’s going to happen, not necessarily how it’s said. What’s said is secondary to what’s going to happen.

What works online is repetition and a series. There’s very little context on the web, where people don’t necessarily know where they are. A one-off video on YouTube doesn’t have a context, but a series does. Readers see the sequence, they can tell what’s happening.

Q. Can we talk about food bloggers for a minute? Do you read any food blogs?

A. Yeah I do. Not regularly, but in binges. I go to a blog and I read a lot of it at a time. I read 101 Cookbooks, and I read the blogs of a few people because I’ve met them and know them personally.

Q. Should food bloggers continue to give away recipes?

A. They don’t have any choice, do they?

Q. How can food bloggers make money? So many want to know.

A. It’s a longshot, to make a living. It’s like making music and putting out a record. You throw it out there and hope something happens. Obviously there are people who are very good at developing an audience, creating a brand, marketing a brand, and getting press.

Q. Do you have final career advice for food writers?

A. Don’t be generic. When I first started writing I thought I had to sound like everybody else, like a magazine article. What I found was the more I let my own personality come through the more successful I was.

That doesn’t mean indulgence. It doesn’t mean just letting it flow onto the screen. It means to be your highly polished best of self.

Be diligent, persistent and write regularly. Don’t limit yourself to the written word. Don’t do the thing that anybody could have done. Add that bit of effort to turn something into something special.

Writers are supposed to do what people don’t have the guts or the energy to do. Find out why or how, not just what.

I get so pissed off when people are lazy.

* * *

For a related story, see:

Chef John Strikes Gold with Allrecipes Acquisition

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  33 Responses to “Want More Work? Get into Video, Advises Chow’s Jane Goldman”

  1. Great interview, Dianne, with a refreshingly honest personality. I love that in anyone – I’m not much good at guessing subtexts.
    Given her information,my slow, painful climb up the learning curve doesn’t look as if it is about to stop anytime soon!

    • Yes, she’s terrific. I met her when she was the editor of Chow and enjoyed her straightforwardness from the get-go. Yes, our mutual climbs into media are continuing. Slow and painful, but also so much fun.

  2. Wow, what an interview. That should make some heads turn and palms sweat as everyone who’s made their living or tried to make a living in a more “traditional” form of food writing basically become obsolete. Evolve…or else. A nice, light message :)

    I do know that with food blogs, if your recipe is amazing but your photography is poor, you aren’t passing go. I learned long ago that even horrible recipes, or super easy ones, or recipes that don’t even work, or writing that is awful… if they are accompanied by stellar images, that trumps all. So it’s not video, but a strong nod to really good visual imagery is really paramount.

    • Oh I don’t know. Those of us in denial can stay there for a while longer. Doncha think?

      Good point re the photography. Here’s where bloggers are ahead of the game – at least the ones who are great photographers.

  3. Wow. Refreshing and terrifying at the same time.
    I think that she is spot on with the video message.
    I see it with our children and school. The world has turned in to such
    a hurried place that learning via visual (speedy) communication is all the rage.
    I think diversifying ones streams of income is the smartest thing to do so
    one is not solely dependent on the words generating all the revenue be it from blog or book. Now running off to try iMovie! Maybe the kids can teach me ;0)

    • Video is a great medium for teaching cooking, obviously. I suppose we shouldn’t think it’s any less effective than the written word. I bet your kids could teach you a few things, Mona! Especially about short attention spans, eh?

  4. I have been reading CHOW for years and its strength has never been writing. I noticed that they do employ writers – just not freelancers. I think there is a long tail of online publications that need great content – and either hire their own writers or get freelancers to do it.

    • Their editors are responsible for writing posts, so that’s where a lot of the content comes from. That is true of most publications these days, whether online or in print. When I toured Saveur I learned that 70 percent of the magazine is written in house.

  5. I am and always will be about the story. That’s what draws me to blogs – that’s what connects me to life. While I don’t intend to make my living as a food writer, I hope there will always be a place where people can connect the food to the story and so to our common humanity.

  6. I think her answer to the final question says it all, Dianne: Don’t be redundant. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be entitled. So many food writers are in desperate need of some tough love, just like that.

    I like that she has a very strong perspective and isn’t afraid to own it (it gets so terribly tiresome when most of what is out there is banal, so many people playing it so safe), but the rest of her answers make her perspective seem a bit too parochial.

    But she’s telling people to be realistic. That’s never bad advice! Great interview. Thanks, Dianne.

    Nicole

    • She has good advice in that last paragraph. I like that she’s not trying to be politically correct as well. Refreshing.

      One of the struggles I go through is that so many people write about food for their own pleasure, and I wonder whether they need this information or want it. This question led to my most commented upon post.

  7. I think I might take a video editing class this month!

  8. Ouch. But we all knew that. Once I thought that being a cookbook author was a full career. Silly me. We are having the top food writers of our industry write articles and send messages like the one Jane just did now. Amanda Hesser wrote another piece just a few weeks ago saying pretty much the same thing. I just attended a conference and heard Molly O’Neil say the exact same thing. Other that those lucky 1 or 2% as you well put Diane in a recent post, chances are you won’t make a living as a food writer. Find a “B” job. And try to keep a smile on your face.

    • Perhaps this is the B job, Leticia. Add it to the list of all the other things food writers do — catering, teaching classes, etc.

  9. Love this interview; love the closing. I recently provided expert quotes to a major online publication and they added a video to it, too. That was the first time I’ve seen them do that.

    And, do everybody a favor, including yourself: get media training.

  10. I have read this interview again – and I think she is flat out wrong. She developed a magazine and sold it – and the last thing she wants is to encourage others to develop their own media websites or publications that will compete. The great gift of the internet is that you can publish every day and get noticed by people, editors, and publications that need writers. There is no longer an East Coast elite who gets to decide who gets heard – and people on top are very aware that all of us little people can build big megaphones.
    This medium is still so NEW – there is immense possibility to do quality work and make money. You just have to be agile and talented and not afraid to promote yourself – which is what you needed before to have a career in food writing.

  11. Great interview, and I absolutely love the finish. I get pissed off when people are lazy, too. (smile) As for video, I’m concerned about having to juggle yet another skill–writing, research, recipe developing, shooting, design, styling and teaching, PLUS video without compromising how well I do each one, but her message has tremendous value for any industry. We have to keep pushing ourselves (I’m saying this for my own value as much as anyone’s). Pushing ourselves forward in our careers and in life is what keeps us fresh, sharp, interesting and as importantly, engaged and excited about our place here. That’s it, I commit to learning iMovie this summer.

    That said, I hope you guys don’t think I’m lazy if you don’t see video up on my site anytime soon. Paying deadlines call….. :)

    • February 2003 titled Benfotiamine when is generic viagra available Blocks.

      It’s true, isn’t it. What keeps us sharp is our ability to move forward in our careers and keep re-inventing ourselves and our messages. I moved from newspapers to magazines to CD-ROMS to the web to books to a blog. I don’t know if video is next. Maybe if I don’t appear in it!

      p.s. Congrats on your Martha moment. I can’t believe how good she looks at …is it 70? And your mom is gorgeous too.

      • Thanks Dianne! She does look amazing. Wow. I hope we all age that well.

        Thanks again for all your dynamic dialogue and for making us feel like we aren’t alone in the journey (and fear of) reinvention.

  12. Dianne,

    As always, this blog post, like all of your posts, is smart. You manage to address relevant, timely information, provide solutions and create lively conversation. Your interview with Jane Goldman is the kick in the butt I’ve been needing. I’m charging my video camera right now.

    Thanks,
    Maureen

    • Maureen, this is too much. Thanks. It’s fun to interview all these sharp people. Looking forward to what you come up with on video.

  13. In order to further diversify my career and have a bloody chance of paying the electricity bill, I’ve just made a bunch of tshirts that say “I get so pissed off when people are lazy” with Jane’s visage on it. I wonder if she would sell them on Chow?

    (Note: The previous comment is satirical, please don’t call me for t-shirts, unless 1000 of you do, in which case, I’ll make them.)

    • As my friend Howard would say, “There’s a free idea for you.” I loved that last line as well. But seriously, I have considered the idea of selling t-shirts that say “Will Write for Food” on them. Just another income stream that wouldn’t pay much. We know a lot about those, eh Becky?

  14. Video isn’t as easy as installing iMovie. You’ll need equipment, training, software, and lots of time to spend honing your craft. Video is not something you can just jump into and be successful. Plan on spending lots of time learning how to edit audio, because bad audio will turn viewers away from even the most well constructed video. Plan on spending lots of time (and money) on learning how to adequately light an environment. Plan on shelling out a good about of cash on a dslr that can record video (I think the cheapest one I’ve found is about $800). And then you’ll need a long time learning to shoot, because that’s the only way to work the bugs out of your technique.

    Video is not for the faint of heart. There’s a reason I get paid $130/hr for videography services – it’s difficult to do well.

    (that said, John over at FoodWishes does a great job with a small camera and iMovie 3, but he’s not creating the kind of video that Jane is talking about)

    • How fortunate are we that you are a videographer and can explain the investment to us, in addition to all your other prowesses, Oh Techie One. Thank you, Steph. It makes sense that video is not a no-brainer. Just like writing! We’re used to rolling our eyes at people who want to become instantly successful writers, so this must be the same.

  15. I’m a word person. It’s not common for me to watch videos even when they are food videos/recipe videos. I don’t want to take the time to do it. They rarely entertain me like words do. And I like that I can read at my own pace or skim if I like. Hard to do that with a video. But I know that many enjoy the videos. They’re probably the same folks who watch food tv all the time, which I don’t like either. Maybe I’m strange, but I’d rather be reading the story and then making something myself simply following the directions.

    Shirley

    • Hey, to each their own. There are still lots of cookbooks and recipes in newspapers and magazines for you, Shirley. I have to agree that beautifully written words are matchless for me as well. But then, I enjoy a good movie or a gorgeous photograph too. It’s not either or.

  16. I am sorry guys, but I like the Snack Girl comment the best, aside from Dianne’s. Sometimes I think that people are so much concerned about competition that they are willing to work hard to discourage others to enter the profession.

    There were quite a few articles recently online discussing the “saturated” food writing business and the feast-and-famine problem that not everyone can handle; yet obviously the people that were writing about these issues are having a great time.

    I understand that some people will comment on the fact that people like Jane or Amanda are not concerned about competition; they just want to be transparent and inform you about the realities of the business. Well, you’ll be surprised, everybody, irrespective of their position and or status prefer a thinner competing group.

    People should take most nay’ Sayers with a grain of salt and rather listen to what Diane recommends: diversify. Do a little bit of teaching, a little bit of blogging, create parties and more.

    I noticed a recent trend (or maybe not that recent) of doing children’s birthday parties where the kids are creating their own cookies; kids love it, parents love it and you know that parents will pay anything when it comes to make their little angels happy.

    • Jayne, everyone has mixed feelings about competition, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s difficult to make a decent living in our field. I don’t think the people who are writing about it are “protesting too much.” Diversifying is about the only way to go, unless you have other sources of income (ex. patron otherwise known as spouse, inheritance, lottery).

      I recently coached someone who has a business doing kids parties like the one you mentioned. She is quite busy at it, but it’s a ton of work and I am not sure it pays much better than food writing!

  17. Dianne, thanks for your response to my message. I did not mean to do the kid’s parties as an alternative, but rather as an addition; it is a different market, so the benefits could be compounded. A writer adds a different source of income from the party, but also may gain additional and/or different writing assignments.

    With respect to a “ton of work”; how they say? No pain/no gain? I guess we cannot get away from it.

  18. The point about laziness is very true. What bothers me is that with mass invasion by convenience food people are getting more and more lazy to cook or the idea of cooking yourself is scary and difficult and people don’b4t even try. When they try they actually like a lot what they have cooked and the fact that they were able to cook it so well.

    On moving image vs written word I see a parallel in watching movies and reading books. Watching a movie is good entertainment where everything visual is preasented to you and you brain lazily just watches and follows. That’b4s great and I love entertaining movies. Then again reading a book requires the reader to imagine what the places and characters look like, what are they feeling… all this is the result of your own brain work and gives a totally different satisfaction.

    I believe that the video may indeed increase in share but the written word will not disappear.

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